The end for Angela Merkel? It's more complicated than that

It would be brave to bet against the CDU or its leader at the general election, explains Dan Hough. 

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On the face of it, Sunday’s regional elections in Germany would appear to have gone disastrously wrong for Angela Merkel and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).  There were losses across the board; 12 per cent in the once strongly conservative Baden-Wuerttemberg, three per cent in the prosperous western state of Rhineland-Palatinate and two per cent in the much less well-off Saxony-Anhalt in the East. 

Furthermore, the spiky, new upstart Alternative for Germany (AfD) did well in all three Laender on the back of a programme that stood in direct contravention to Merkel’s.  The AfD, a party that came in to existence to criticise Merkel’s Eurocrisis management, has metamorphosed in to the fiercest critic of her migration policies and will now have a strong presence in the parliaments of all three states. 

Yet there is more to these results than meets the eye.  It is certainly not simply a case of a significant number of Germans opting to vote against a leader who they see as losing control of migration politics.  Indeed, if one looks closer there is no real overarching narrative at all across these elections.  Although Merkel won’t say it in public, that will lighten her mood ever so slightly.  

The Greens, always more liberal on immigration issues than any other mainstream party in Germany, will be particularly pleased with their performance in the once Christian Democratic stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg.  A Green politician, Winfried Kretschmann, has been prime minister of the Laendle since the Greens won a shock victory in 2011, and he managed not just to remain in office, but also to increase his vote share by around 6 percentage points.  Kretschmann is certainly not your average Green politician, and his pro-business agenda is not to the taste of everyone in his party.  But if voters in Germany’s third biggest state are indeed rejecting Merkel's 'we can do it' politics by effectively supporting one of her cheerleaders, then they are showing it in a very strange way.

The same can be said of the election in Rhineland-Palatinate.  The campaign there was much more of a head-to-head between a popular Prime Minster (Malu Dreyer from the SPD) and a potential Merkel successor at the national level (Julia Kloeckner, CDU).  The dual was often feisty, and in the end Dryer clearly came out on top.  Indeed, Kloeckner’s campaign left quite a lot to be desired.  Dryer and the SPD won in Mainz because they made better arguments in a more accessible way.

Even in Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD is at its strongest, the CDU remained the strongest party.  Coalition formation looks like it will be difficult, but the chances are that the CDU’s Rainer Haseloff will still be leading the next government.  

The story here is actually one of regional elections doing precisely what they should do - giving voice to regional difference.  The narrative is confused because the results, if viewed through the prism of national politics, must look confusing.  Furthermore, where national politics does impinge on regional elections, research shows us clearly what to expect.  Governing parties at the national level generally perform (often much) less well in regional elections that take place mid-term.  We see that to different extents in different places, but the trend is noticeable nonetheless.

Angela Merkel and the CDU will subsequently have known what was likely to be coming down the line.  That certainly won't fill Merkel with confidence, but it certainly doesn't mean that all needs be doom and gloom.  The key test for Merkel now will be to use the improved opinion poll ratings that she personally has and the controversial deal that she struck with Turkey last week to do the one thing that will blunt criticisms of her – stop the flow of migrants coming in to Germany.  If she uses her much-vaunted staying power and political doggedness, then it’d be a brave punter who would bet against a CDU victory in the 2017 election.

Dr Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

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